Staffing – a Sense of Togetherness Defines Iconic Ashford Castle

Wednesday, August 10, 2022. 2:22pm
Four Irish hotels claim World's Best Awards, Top spot for Ashford Castle

A Sense of Togetherness that Defines a Successful Hotel

Niall Rochford has been General Manager of Ashford Castle for twenty years. Having followed the example of Mark Nolan in Dromoland Castle (where he spent 11 years as Deputy GM), he sees his role as GM as one of leading by example and ensuring he makes everyone else’s job as clear and as easy as possible.   I try to give our team the tools, support and resources to do their jobs as well as they can.

There are no ivory towers here… My office is right in the middle of all offices and my door is always open.  I’ll be in clearing tables at breakfast in the morning when necessary or at reception meeting guests and I also expect my management team to do the same.   I believe in “Team work” as if you try to operate any other way, you won’t get the sense of togetherness that delivers genuine service.”

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

That sense of togetherness he speaks of has served the hotel well through thick and thin and during the last two years of Pandemic restrictions, the hotel managed to hold onto all of the staff who wanted to stay.

“We didn’t let anybody go,” says Niall, “although some team members decided to leave or to go to other industries… so we have been impacted but we have been fortunate that due to the strong Government supports and to the generosity of the Tollman family (of Red Carnation; the owners), every staff member who wanted to stay was supported over the two years of the Pandemic.”

When it reopened, the hotel faced the challenge of increased demand which highlighted shortfalls in staffing. But even when the staffing challenge is being met, the next challenge is staff accommodation.  

“Air B&B has added to the lack of available options” Niall notes. “There are now some four hundred properties around Cong given over to Air B&B. This is valuable accommodation we need to accommodate our staff. For instance, we have 30 staff coming in the next month or so and while we currently have 94 team members in accommodation – 75 on the property and 19 off-property – we need accommodation for another 30 team members and we’re struggling badly to find accommodation for them.”

Meanwhile, Ashford Castle’s ‘family’ remain intact. In the last week alone, Niall says, there have been celebrations to mark separate staff members who have been working in Ashford Castle for 25, 30 and 40 years respectively. They currently have twenty members of their staff who are in the “25 Club” – for people who have been working here for 25 years or more.

In the Bar

One of the hotel’s best-known “25 Club” members is barman Paul Coyne, who has been with the hotel for 37 years.

“A lot of Americans have been coming here ever since The Quiet Man was filmed here in 1951,” says Paul. “They come for The Quiet Man; they come for the castle, for the fact that the stars of the film stayed in the hotel – John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara… Then, after the American president Ronald Regan stayed here in 1984 for two nights, that brought a lot more American’s.”

Paul joined the team in Ashford Castle when he was 16 years old, having had some weekend bar-work experience in small pub in Connemara.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“I left school just a month before my Leaving Cert. I saw an advert on the local Sunday paper for staff and I applied. I got an interview with Mr Rory Murphy, who was the General Manager at the time and got the job.”

For the first three months, he worked on washing-up duties, before being moved to the bar. Far from being intimidated as a minor starting work in a large luxury hotel, he found the environment a very comfortable one:

“It was very welcoming from the word go,” he says. “It was very busy but seasonal.” During the closed period (November to March), he’d go back working at his original place of employment in Connemara.

Communication first and foremost,” he says when asked what elements constitute a good barman. “Having a watchful eye… knowing your clientele is important. If you have repeat business, ensure that you know their name and welcome them back… make them feel at home.”

Paul does a lot of in-house training with new staff members – getting them to do things the same way and to be in tune with the five-star service on offer.

In common with a number of other staff members in the hotel, Paul recalls the late American actor/comedian Robin Williams with great fondness.

“He was staying here one time and he went down to the Dungeon Bar,” says Paul. “There was entertainment that night from ten until midnight. He wore the most unusual suit that I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like a chessboard – black-and-white chequered pattern on the jacket and trousers. As I was taking his drink order, another couple walked in and, as I passed them, I greeted them and said, ‘I’ll be with you, momentarily’. The lady then said, ‘I guess you’re going to treat us like second-class citizens tonight’. I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘Because you have a very famous actor.’”

Acting with professional discretion, Paul said, “I honestly don’t know what you mean, but please take a seat there and I’ll be with you in a second.”

The guest persisted, pointing out to Paul that the other guest in the chequered suit was “Robin Williams from Mork and Mindy and a few other movies she listed. I pretended that I didn’t know who it was. As I walked away from the table, I heard her say to her husband, ‘That has to be one of the dumbest waiters I’ve ever come across in my life!’”

In his 37 years of working in the bar, he says, he has never had to ask a client to leave – only to have what he terms a little cogar (whisper) in the ear of a customer to ask them to quiet down a little on a rare occasion.

“It’s a lovely industry to get involved in,” says Paul, “and the most important thing is to be yourself. Don’t ever change for anybody – be yourself, be natural and don’t try to be somebody you’re not. That’s my advice to any young person looking to start in this business. Listen, watch, take in…

“We all get on here… It’s a pleasure to work here. I’ve always been a home bird and the hotel is like a home-from-home for me, while it’s great meeting guests and working with all the different nationalities that come through our doors. I think we have 35 different nationalities working here now.  

Debbie Byrne works in the Prince of Wales bar, the Billiard Room and the Drawing Room as Assistant Manager. Hailing originally from Carlow, she came to Ashford Castle from London, where she had spent five years working for a high-standard restaurant chain. She has always worked in hospitality, working in cafés restaurants and a hotel all in Carlow before getting training in Shannon and then getting the position in London directly from that. Debbie did try retail and ‘sitting in front of a computer all day’ types of work but they didn’t suit and she made a conscious decision at one point to pursue a career in hospitality.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“To be honest, when I came here first and I saw the little village and the one shop, I thought, ‘not too sure… Maybe give it a year and I’ll go back to somewhere like London with this on my CV’”

But, as she says, she was drawn into life at Ashford. “It’s the people here that make you feel like… one big family! It’s funny how that sounds, saying it out loud but that’s how it is. I’m here eight years now; I’ve bought a house here; I met my husband here. We’ve one child and one on the way. We’re fully settled here and I love it.”

The Culinary Cradle of the Peace Process

For the great hotel’s restaurant manager Robert Bowe, one of the standout events in his memory of working at Ashford Castle came with the hosting of EC (EU) conferences in 1990.

The hotel hosted a vast number of government ministers and prime ministers, including the Minister for Finance of the day Albert Reynolds and Britain’s (then) finance minister John Major.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“The two of them became great friends,” recalls Robert. “They had breakfast together every day and dinner together every night and they even went for walks together. They both then went on to become prime ministers of their respective countries.”

The two men were deeply involved in the Peace Process that led to the end of violence in Northern Ireland and Robert is convinced when the two of them met as finance ministers, they both must have realised the enormous economic cost the open-ended state of conflict was creating.

“I think this was the catalyst for them to start the Peace Process,” says Robert, who adds that there were many more such historic events held in the hotel, such as when British PM Tony Blair met with Taoiseach Bertie Aherne at a later point in the Peace Process. There were also various adverts shot here, as well as films, such as John Ford’s aforementioned “The Quiet Man” and the hotel hosted numerous stars of sport and cinema. The late Robin Williams was one guest who stands out in Robert’s memory in particular, as well as Pierce Brosnan (“a real ‘pints of Guinness’ man”), who held his wedding reception at Ashford Castle.

Robert’s own son has worked in the hotel and he maintains it’s a great establishment for any young person looking to work in the business: “There are such great supports here… it’s not like you come in here and you get left here and have to paddle your own canoe. When you come in, you’re put with a mentor and they look after you, you’re quickly shown the ropes and it’s a great education for a young person.

“It’s very important to try the industry first,” he says, “to go into a hotel for a summer – get a job as a waiter or as a young chef or even in the bar and see if you like it. The summer is the best time because it will be busy… you’ll see a lot of people… and you’re going to know very quickly whether or not you’re going to like it. It’s not a career for everybody but it’s an invaluable career. You can use skills learned anywhere in the world – it’s a great career to have and to learn a language is very important as well.”

Calm at the Head of the Kitchen

Clare man Barry Lynch is Head Chef at Ashford Castle, having arrived at the property six years ago to take up a position of Executive Sous Chef.

Unusually, Barry’s background is as a butcher’s apprentice – a position he opted for at the age of 16.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“My father is a tiler and I did a bit of building work when I was younger, so I knew from a very young age what I didn’t want to do. I loved eating, so I was kind-of driven by that.”

After two years as a butcher’s apprentice in Ennis, he went to GMIT and completed a two-year course in professional cookery. From there, he succeeded in getting a scholarship to work in a hotel on Paris’ Rue de Rivoli. After this invaluable experience, he got a job at the newly opened Doonbeg Golf Club and Leisure Centre. Here, he spent another couple of years, working his way up from Commis Chef to Chef de Partie. After the next two years spent travelling in Australia and Scotland, he returned to Ireland, working first at Gregans Castle in the Burren, then The Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna before taking up a job offer at Knockranny House in Westport, from where his career path led to the doors of Ashford Castle.

There are currently some 60 staff under his command – 40 chefs and other kitchen staff making up the remaining 20 kitchen personnel. With three main restaurants and a total of five dining outlets, it’s a large operation with levels of service ranging from the high-end George V to the more casual outlets in the hotel.

“The biggest challenge is finding the right staff in the right areas and cross-training them. But it can also work well the other way because when you’re hiring people, we nearly always have the ‘perfect shoe to fit the foot’, so to speak.

It’s important to do what you’re drawn to,” says Barry, “not to come out of the Leaving Cert and say, ‘I’ve got 550 points so I might as well be a doctor’. I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Unlike a lot of other hotel kitchens, his one doesn’t bring in any pre-prepared vegetables. This is down to our philosophy of using only the best ingredients local and so fresh, from one day to the next, the offerings could be very different.  When he was training in Paris, he recalls getting a tour of the famous George V Hotel and seeing one kitchen staff member with “a mountain of carrots… that’s what she was doing all day, but that’s how you develop your knife skills – not by using it to open a packet.”

Martin the Maître

Martin Gibbons followed in his grandfather’s footsteps when he became maître d’ at Ashford Castle’s fine-dining George V Restaurant bar, having first come to work as a commis waiter in Ashford on the 18th of August, 1974.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“My grandfather – also Martin Gibbons – was here with the Guinness family in the early 1900s. He was one of the many gamekeepers here. At that time, the Guinness’ had it as a hunting estate.”

Martin’s father worked for Coillte on the forestry of what had been part of the estate (after Independence, much of the original estate was sold off and divided into ownership) and the Gibbons family tradition of working at Ashford Castle continues with Martin’s three sons who have worked here.

Martin was inspired by words of his schoolteacher, who pointed to the CERT stand at a jobs fair and said, “I know lots of people who joined up there and never went hungry.”

He was in one of the very first classes at the catering college that became GMIT and his career and life became centred on Ashford Castle ever since. He met his wife here (a chef trained in Killybegs) and they had five children together.

“It’s a great way of life,” says Martin, “and here, there’s something very special about the place… it’s unique.”

It’s all about family, he says, with families having owned the Castle down through its history, with many families having grown up around it and worked in it and with a strong sense of family that permeates right through the workforce.

“It’s a huge place so it takes a while for people to settle but once they do… I’ve seen people coming through the doors on the first day and they wouldn’t talk to anyone but after a while here, they’re chatting away to everyone.”

One of the biggest changes in restauration that he has seen in his almost fifty years of service at Ashford is that the presentation has moved from the theatre on the floor (in the form of flambé-ing dishes or boning fish at the table) to the plate. Nowadays, he says, the concentration is on the dish itself – people being presented with a ‘picture on the plate’.  However, we remain true the elegance of the George V and continue offering tableside service.  

Like many others of his generation in the hotel and catering sector, he laments the loss of CERT but feels the industry is beginning to adapt to the need for proper national training system.

“Agriculture and tourism are still two very important industries in this country and if we have people coming into the country, we need people to look after them. Red Carnation are very good at looking after people here with training too, but there must be a proper college system to get trained people into the industry… and it’s a career that can bring you to wherever in the world you want to go.”

The Porter Generations

Paddy Costello is another employee at Ashford Castle who has been part of the happy family for over four decades. Answering a newspaper advert 45 years ago, he was informed of his success at interview by telegram – a method of communication that would need some explaining to the younger members of the team today.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“A neighbour drove me here in his car on the day I started,” says Paddy, “and it was like getting a job in Buckingham Palace at the time.”

Starting as Hall Porter, his initial tasks involved collecting the baggage from the car when the guest arrived, showing them to their room and bringing them back to the car when the guests were leaving, before waving them off.

“Now I’m a Lounge Ambassador. I meet the guests when they arrive and when they’re going. I tell them stories about the Castle when they first arrive.”

Paddy’s tenure has been even longer than most because, even during the days when the hotel would shut down all winter, he took up the role of Security Guard on the vacant property, putting him in a rare category of someone who worked at the Castle all year ‘round.

“As I often say, we’re one big happy family… It’s a fantastic place. I’ve been to New York and Chicago and Florida and I’ve seen a lot of fancy hotels there but this is pure class. The guests leaving always say ‘Paddy, this has been the best’ and it’s not just the place – it’s the staff.”

Pavel is now at the position where Paddy spent so much of his time. The Polish native came to Ireland initially to follow his Polish girlfriend but ended up falling for Ireland (he’s now married with three children) and for life at Ashford Castle. He started as a linen porter, before moving to housekeeping and, after four years, he became a porter, where he’s been working for six years.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“It’s been a lovely ten years that I’ve been here,” says Pavel. “I’ve seen the changes for myself – I was working as a security guard while the renovations were going on… It’s hard work but it’s really enjoyable.”

Youthful Exuberance

Nathan is one of the youngest people working at Ashford Castle. He made the long journey down from the very northern tip of Ireland – Moville, on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula.

After studying for four years in Letterkenny, he came to Ashford Castle for a familiarisation visit and ended up staying. It was a visit for second years, he points out, and therefore a ‘fluke’ result that he was even on that trip but now it certainly feels like it was meant to be.

“I finished my last exam on the 14th of May 2019 and I started here on the 17th of May.

The youngest of seven children, he says all of his siblings have worked in the hospitality industry at some point in their lives.

“Originally, I wanted to be a chef like my dad,” he says, before he spent some time in a professional kitchen and realised that it wasn’t for him as a career. “It just didn’t suit me being stuck in the kitchen environment because I was always interested in what was going on in front of house.”

Nathan made a last-minute change on his CAO form, opting for a front-of-house course instead of his original kitchen-oriented choices. At the end of 1st year, he went on a 12-week work placement in the dining room of a hotel in Moville but he enjoyed it so much that he ended up staying there for two years.

“I loved it!” he says enthusiastically, recalling that his first day on duty was July 12th – one of the busiest days of the year in a Donegal hotel’s calendar.

He moved to Ashford Castle and began as a commis waiter, finding himself fitting in very quickly:

“After a very short space of time here, I felt like part of the furniture. Ashford has that kind of culture here. Once you get to know a few people, you’re part of the family.”

Ashford Castle had to close when Pandemic restrictions came in but a few days before the closure, Nathan was approached by the GM Niall Rochford and given the task of coming up with ideas of how the team could continue to communicate during the socially-distanced world that was about to be imposed on them.

“I was flattered and honoured to think that he would pick me to do this,” says Nathan. “I came up with the idea of having a private closed Facebook group, adding all the employees into it and every week, we’d come up with a calendar of what I was going to post.”

The online group had huge engagement levels. It helped to get everyone through Lockdown, earning Nathan an Employee-of-the-Month award in April 2020. It also earned Nathan a nickname that still sticks – the King of Connection.

When the hotel finally reopened properly earlier this year, Nathan was promoted first to Demi Chef de Rang and then to the role of Supervisor. This latest promotion followed further award recognition – this time from the international Forbes Travel Guide Awards, where his nomination earned him a place in the top four in the world.

Between returning guests who casually invite him for a spin in their helicopter or brand-new Ferrari to the manner in which everyone at work took the time to send him good wishes when he was sick with Covid, Nathan is constantly impressed by the closeness of work colleagues and regular guests:

“I’ve worked in a few places but never in a place that was like a family,” he says.

21-year-old Georgia O’Dwyer from Waterville in Kerry is equally gushing about the family atmosphere at Ashford Castle. Working as waitress in the Prince of Wales Bar and in the Drawing Room, she also first came here on a work placement last summer (as part of the third year of her Hotel & Catering course in GMIT) and ended up staying.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“I love it here,” she says, “I was honestly a bag of nerves when I first arrived here… but it’s like you just fall into place when you come here. It’s like a big family and everyone makes you feel so welcome. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true.

“I can always go back to college – it will always be there but I thought ‘why not continue here and progress here’? It’s working out better for me not to be in college… They’d already shown me so much more in my first six months here than I’d learned in college.”

Some of her friends share her love of hospitality but some of them don’t, she says.

“A lot of people regard it as a part-time job or a summer job but there’s so much more to it. I got to see that on my placement year because I got to go down to the Reservations Office and places like that and I got to see that there’s so much more to a hotel and to hospitality than just waitressing and bar work. People don’t realise it.”

Her long-term dream, she says, is to run a food-and-beverage department one day or perhaps own her own restaurant. She also feels that the hotel & catering industry isn’t one that’s pushed too strongly as a career – not as much as the advice to take the usual academic options, such as university or a Post Leaving cert Course. It was, in fact, Georgia’s mother who nudged her in the direction of the hotel industry.

“I felt that, at school, it just wasn’t encouraged but my mum said, ‘but it’s what you’re good at, so why don’t you stick at it?’ There are so many people around my age who would be good at it too but they never think of taking it on as a career.”

She would like to go into schools now – to get the message out there. She talks about how she had TY students in having a look around and it really got some of them thinking and looking at the business in a new light.

“I do love it. I’m passionate about it and it keeps me fit as well because I’m always running up and down the stairs!”

Work-Life Balance at Front of House

The Front-of-House Manager Geoffrey Bergh-Lloyd joined Ashford Castle from another Red Carnation property in his native South Africa.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“I saw it as a good opportunity for me to travel,” he says, explaining what prompted him to first get into the hotel industry. His career has been a globe-trotting one, beginning in earnest in Cape Town before taking up positions in Chicago, Durban and now Cong, County Mayo.

Despite his wife’s initial reservations about the Mayo winter, he says that they are now well acclimatised and settled with their two Gaelic-football-playing sons.

“A typical day for me would begin around 07:30 and I would just make sure that everything is prepared and ready for the day,” he says. “That would entail looking at the arrivals, making sure that everybody’s rooms are allocated, that the team is well taken care of – that’s the key to the role; making sure that the team is well taken care of. If we look after our team, we look after our guests. And if we look after our guests, then our job is done.”

Something that has kept Geoffrey working with the Red Carnation group for so long, he says, is the fact that they promote a good work-life balance.

“It’s something that’s very important for myself,” he underlines, saying that in terms of the team spirit at the hotel, the best comment he ever got was from a member of the staff was when someone said he was “like their second dad”.

“That was kind-of high! I’ll take that – looking after everyone as they’re growing and doing what they’re supposed to be doing at the same time.

“Working in hospitality is very fulfilling. As a career, it’s one where you can be whoever you want to be. You can grow and develop and the world’s your oyster, really.”

Leaving a Lasting Impression

Another South African national working in the hotel is to be found in accounts.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

Cindy Mullarkey (her surname is courtesy of her Irish husband) began with Ashford Castle 25 years ago and has still not found a reason to leave. Her first impression of the “overwhelming” welcome of Ashford Castle as a guest left a lasting impression on her, she says: “It was at that moment that I fell in love with Ireland and with Ashford Castle and I’m still here 25 years later.”

Hers is an example of how the hospitality industry can result in a change of direction in ones career: her educational background is in public relations and not accountancy.

Another team member who has been at Ashford Castle for the same length of time is Catherine Kenny. Her role as Rooms Division Manager is a liaison that oversees a number of departments and Catherine has excelled in this role for the last 25 years.

Staffing - a Sense of Togetherness that Defines the Iconic Ashford Castle

“I have a very good overall view of all sections within my departments,” she explains. “I’ve a very hands-on approach so if it was the case that there was somebody out in housekeeping or out in front-of-house, I would just slot in.”

Catherine would also ensure things happen the way they are meant to, according to the various requests of clients – such as the man who wanted to hold a Beauty and the Beast themed engagement party. It involved outsourcing to an event planner but the show went off smoothly and the lady said Yes.

“There’s a lot of engaging and planning in advance of a guest’s arrival,” she says and it is important guest’s concerns are heard while the guest is there, as then you can do something about it, rather than hearing about it afterwards. Ultimately, you don’t want a guest leaving and having some element of doubt in their mind about the experience.”

Positive Forecast for the Year Ahead

“From the perspective of the 5-star luxury hotel market right now, the desire to travel is very strong and reflected in our enquiries” says Niall Rochford. “We’re potentially looking at one of the best years we’ve ever had this year. Forward bookings are extremely strong – particularly from the US. And what’s even more interesting is that we’ve created a new domestic market we didn’t have prior to Covid… We don’t expect it to continue as strongly as it did during the Covid period but we have a new high-end market of Irish-based people who probably went abroad three or four times a year and who will still go abroad maybe twice a year, but who will now come to somewhere like Ashford on one of those trips, as a special treat.”

The only thing that is preventing this year from being a record year (as opposed to being one of the best years), Niall says, is the shortfall in talent and in accommodation provision.

“The Tollman family are here for the long term… They see Ashford Castle as a very important member of the Red Carnation Hotel collection and one they will look after for years to come.”

There are a number of positions available at Ashford Castle and the Lodge at Ashford, please check the careers section on the website

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